Critics are expected to make comparisons. The ability to recognize similarities between people, texts, and ideas is a skill expected of those who observe and write on culture. As music criticism continues to be transformed by post-structuralism, feminism, poptimism, and retromania, a number of writers are praised for articulating a profound connection that seems strained or completely unrelated upon first utterance. What does Taylor Swift have in common with Def Leppard, KISS, Eminem, and Nicki Minaj? Plenty, according to her. What would she have to talk about with Best Coast’s Bethany Cosentino? Plenty, according to me.
Putting forth these kinds of arguments speaks to contemporary culture’s continued indebtedness to the merging of high and low art that resulted from modernism accidentally rubbing elbows with postmodernism on the train after a sojourn to Warhol’s factory and kind of liking it. It speaks to why my friend Jen hates that Roy Lichtenstein stole from comic books to legitimate panels and pixels for gallery dwellers. It also speaks to why so many Americans are thrilled to see themselves through Mad Men‘s eyes, even if they don’t agree on whether or not the show actually feels like the past.
Music critics love to forge connections between artists across genres. For one, it’s a way for us to show off our eclecticism. Jody Rosen making a comparison between Justin Bieber and Frankie Lymon demonstrates his knowledge of pop history. Me arguing that the Cars’ “My Best Friend’s Girl” is a country song lets some folks know that I understand the group’s connection to Gene Vincent links them to proto-punk bands like Suicide as well as a larger songwriting tradition. It’s also a way for us to launch arguments with one another. But it’s also a way to challenge the definitions of what constitutes a genre by pretending the boundaries around it don’t exist. There’s privilege in trespassing and appropriating, of course. But there’s also the possibility of liberation, particularly from meaningless and oppressive words like “authenticity” and the segregated taste hierarchies they impose.
Paying attention to what songs musical acts decide to cover can be productive when we talk about hybridity, eclecticism, genre, and cultural assumptions. People still tend to be surprised by a cover by a “rock” artist interpreting a “pop” song outside of their genre–even American Idol judges who know Colton Dixon is just copying 30 Seconds to Mars’ take on Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”. I was embarrassed when I visited Travis Morrison’s old Web site and listened to his spirited, acoustic version of Ludacris’ “What’s Your Fantasy,” but I knew the Dismemberment Plan well enough to not be surprised by it. I actually prefer Stars’ lounge-y cover of the Smiths’ “This Charming Man” to the original.
When I originally encountered Lisa Robinson’s Vanity Fair cover story on Katy Perry, I rolled my eyes at her comparison between the singer and Dolly Parton. A small part of me was offended–I respect Dolly as a musician and regard Perry as a bad object. My initial response is telling, particularly in how I reverted back to objectification, binarism, and misogyny–feminists are never done unlearning. But I also thought the comparison was super-obvious. Both women became famous for their particular brands of winking hyperfemininity. …And?
Then I listened to Perry’s “The One That Got Away” while waiting in line at Subway one day and was mesmerized by it. What I found especially transfixing was that, if you dulled its electro sheen and slowed it down, I think you’d have a country song. My friend Sarah pointed out that you’d basically have a Taylor Swift song, which challenges my original position on both artists. Here’s what I think makes it feel like a country song.
. . . Actually, I’ll give you a moment to process the age makeup and Diego Luna first.
-The lyric about making out in a Mustang to Radiohead is at once a very specific reference to Perry’s former relationship yet holds universal appeal. It sets the tone for the entire song, which contains references to tattoos, Johnny Cash, and delinquent romance. A hallmark of country songwriting is incorporating minute character details that seem particular to the artist and to millions of listeners.
-The elegant, austere sadness of the song’s melody makes you drop a tear in your beer and gives you the forward momentum to get off your bar stool and sleep it off. The composition is at once simple, yet towering and opulent. It’s as if the song was plated with gold and girded with steel, an abstract description that sounds like a Parton lyric.
-Perry doesn’t have Linda Ronstadt’s vocal abilities. Few do. But the wounded quality to Perry’s voice makes me think of “Blue Bayou” and “You’re No Good”, particularly in the chorus. Listen to the twang she puts on “in another life” to deepen the song’s sense of urgency and romantic ache and her rueful, muted delivery on a lyric like “us against the world,” which is paired with a descending melodic line.
What I’m getting at here is country music is at once clearly defined and not one thing. So it makes sense that Perry performed this song last fall at the American Music Awards in a hot pink getup and matching guitar that looked like Jem landed at the Grand Ol’ Opry (BTW, I’d totally see Perry, Swift, Rihanna, and Jessie J play the Misfits in a live-action film adaptation of Jem and the Holograms). The genre’s defining characteristics are distinct, yet also malleable and permeable. That’s what makes listening to music so much fun, and thinking about it continuously rewarding.
During my brief trip to Texas, I went to the video premiere for Christeene’s “African Mayonnaise” at Cheer Up Charlie’s. I was pretty excited to see the final product, as I knew it was a tense shoot. I also heard it was Christeene’s best video to date. I can vouch for it. Given Christeene’s impressive videography, that’s saying something. It is an exhilarating video. It has dense, beautiful imagery that requires multiple viewings to unpack all the stuff that’s going on. It demands you watch it more than once. It’s a statement video, one that I might place alongside Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”. But it’s a lot more fun to watch than most statement videos, particularly since they tend to be overlong yet short on ideas, Artistically Significant yet ultimately shallow, and include dialogue. Get to the hook already!
The song is about celebrity–the mutual dependence between star and fan, the malleability of image, the tricky business of turning a person into a constellation of symbols, the star’s contentious relationship with the camera, the acrid deliciousness of scandal. The video mirrors that concept in its attempts to create iconographic imagery and reveal that those images are made possible through surveillance. In addition to what PJ Raval and his crew shot and edited, the video also includes footage–mostly taken from smart phones–from fans and onlookers.
One of the major themes of the video–perhaps Christeene’s entire M.O.–is invasion. The video shows Christeene and her back-up dancers shimmying in front of the Austin Motel and sashaying through a food court, a supermarket, a barber shop, a hair salon, a gym, a patio bar, the UT South Mall, Starbucks, a Scientology center. Christeene also poses in front of the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe and is displayed on a television monitor placed in a chicken coop apparently belonging to the artist. I don’t see malevolence behind these moments of invasion, though some of the men do look uncomfortable about receiving dances from Christeene and her minions. I even think there’s potential moments for community formation. Certainly the dance party at the end of the video celebrates Austin’s queer scene. But I see such gestures of good will and inclusion in Christeene high-fiving a woman at the gym and waving to a young girl at the grocery store. I think the collaborative nature of the video’s shoot reflects this spirit as well. In taking a piece of Christeene, many people are part of the process of constructing her.
But the charged moments–what made the film infamous in friend circles before its premiere–were the scuffles with authority. Police officers escorted Christeene and the crew off the premises during the shoot at various locations. In particular, staff members at the Church of Scientology of Texas locked their doors and confiscated equipment. Folks also harassed the star and crew with hate speech. At least one person cried godless and I like that this moment is reframed as a joke about the stupidity and destructiveness of queerphobia. I think such moments of brutality and intolerance, and the willingness to share them and package them as part of a music video, are what’s so powerful about this clip. Celebrity may have power over us, but it’s useless without people using that platform to challenge larger social and institutional problems. It’s thrilling to watch a queer artist, dressed in unconvincing drag, confront such phobia in public. Christeene does it through humor and an invitation of inclusion, but the stakes are fucking high in the war against individual freedom. Cops might rough you up. People might yell at you because you tucked in your dick and flaunted your ass in public. Cult practitioners may take your stuff and make threats. It happens off-camera.
Christeene also reclaims space as a star. Stars often accommodate the context they’re in, particularly at red carpet events and photo shoots. Teams of people make them into whatever they need to be for a film premiere, magazine interview, or concert. Even stars photographed without makeup is a construction no different from a band breaking out an acoustic guitar to do an “unplugged” performance. Stripping down is as much an act as wearing a safe Armani gown. I don’t know if many would label Christeene a star. She’s not starring in an action movie based on a board game, though I’d love her to play Queen Frosteene in Candyland: The Reckoning. She’s not performing for a televised award show, though she’d show up in an outfit at least as eye-catching as Björk’s swan dress. She doesn’t have a hit album, though I think that might come. Have you heard her music? The production’s really good and the singles are ready for the clubs.
But Christeene is a star to me, perhaps in the way that Courtney Love and Sinéad O’Connor insisted upon their own fame and found an audience with their outsize talent and personality. Christeene wasn’t groomed for celebrity. Quite frankly, I don’t think she has interest in grooming of any kind. Yet she has become a star for some on the basis of her formidable imagination and her total ownership of this invented persona. It continues to blow my mind that Christeene and Rebecca Havemeyer share Paul Soileau’s body. Frankly, I’m intimidated by the kind of creative person who can breathe these beings into existence even if I’m thrilled that such a person can take pop iconography and make something truly punk out of it. That’s probably why I write about it instead.
But actually, the challenge to write about Christeene is also exciting for me. Lokeilani Kaimana might attest that it’s hard to do. A friend of mine at school recently did a job talk about sketch comedy and used Funny or Die as a case study. I wondered how a figure like Christeene, who used the site as a distribution platform, might disrupt how we conceptualize FoD’s viewership and comedy more broadly. I attempted to explain Christeene to the speaker and the audience, grasping at words like “bad drag,” “gold tooth,” and “rectum.”
She’s especially difficult to talk about in terms of race. I believe this is deliberate on the part of the artist, but no less dicey in execution. “African Mayonnaise” refers to the mixture of cum and fecal matter on a spent penis after anal sex. The use of the term “African” to connote darkness and shit is … yikes. Many might say it’s outright racist, and I’m not sure I have an argument against such an appraisal. In a lot of ways, Christeene’s dangerous play with race as a white drag performer reminds me of Nitsuh Abebe’s excellent piece on CocoRosie and artistic risk. There are certainly perils and limits to playing with race, not the least of which is alienating an audience.
I don’t want to applaud these artists and call them brave or misunderstood simply for making people angry or uncomfortable. I know their work might play into rather than challenge other people’s racist assumptions. But I think there’s something valuable to not only acknowledging that such assumptions exist in the culture, but that they must be confronted, mutated, and roughed up in the process (working with a gay filmmaker of color who was a cinematographer on Trouble the Water doesn’t hurt either). Anyone can make millions from an anthem about individuality and perseverance that makes vague claims toward and cynically leaches off of a queer audience. But it takes something more to position yourself as a star and base such fame on the abjection of stardom.
Some may make comparisons between Lady Gaga’s crutches and Christeene becoming someone else’s (or her own) santorum. For one, what an uninspired comparison. For another, celebrating one’s own abjection, framing it as explicitly queer, and making angry, giddy, political, participatory art out it feels a lot more transgressive to me than some of the music passing as such these days. She may never win a Grammy, but I’m no less challenged, outraged, and awestruck. Sounds like pop to me.
Last month, Ann Powers celebrated Madonna’s 53rd birthday by collecting her 53 favorite songs from the Material Girl. She posted suggestions on Twitter and I provided my picks along with several others. This went live shortly after Ellen Copperfield’s musings on Madge for This Recording and preceded Carilynn27’s Persephone post that twined Madonna’s music with autobiography and fandom. It also follows a sustained narrative of (predominantly white) women (and girls) taking about, listening to, and playing with Madonna. Lots of media studies criticism in the late 80s and into the 90s sought to understand Madonna as screen subject, fan object, and feminist star text. All of the stuff that will be written about Gaga will have to be built upon this body of work.
I came of age during this time, and remember listening to Madonna with my mother, a fan who didn’t think that allowing me to watch the video for “Like a Prayer” would make me a Satanist. Actually, it clued me in on Madonna being something of a racial fetishist. I also developed my nascent Madonna fandom during my pubescent years through my stepmother. I was fascinated by her outspoken love for Madonna, especially since it seemed so closely tied to adult sexual expression. As a ten-year-old girl, coming across a copy of Erotica was better than any of the Updike or Nin I snuck off my dad’s bookshelf at night. You can’t dance to Rabbit, Run. I also purloined my stepmom’s copy of Sex, which she tucked into the back of her closet.
Erotica was well-received critically, though underrated. Some thought Madonna ran out of ideas, or was just trying to shock people, or simply wasn’t sexy. A few critics claimed Erotica was too cold and calculated to be sexy. I think they miss the point–mediating an image of sexiness usually takes the sex out of it because sexuality tends to operate (and be obfuscated) at a subliminal level. Openly subverting expectations of feminine sexiness and reconfiguring what signifies as sexy for women causes a lot of discomfort. Power is an aphrodisiac, as long as it isn’t actually wielded by women. Many of the scenarios in the “Erotica” video are trite and regressive–lipstick lesbianism, celebrity friends, S&M, problematic assumptions about black sexuality. But I can’t imagine many contemporary pop stars exploring erotic menace or foregrounding explicitly queer images of sexuality in a mainstream context as Madonna did with Erotica, which was released during a time when AIDS casualties and HIV prevention were more greatly emphasized. Plus the album has “Rain” and “Bye Bye Baby,” which are two of my favorite songs. It also has “Did You Do It?,” which, as with all song where Madge raps, you should skip.
Gaga may come the closest to fulfilling Erotica‘s potential. There’s no question that Jo Calderone owes hir existence to Ralph Macchio, Annie Lennox, Andrew Dice Clay, Danny Zuko, and Lenny Bruce. But what I appreciated about Gaga’s drag performance at the VMAs was her commitment to it. She didn’t make any costume changes during the night to re-establish her femininity. She kept her breasts bound throughout the ceremony and didn’t wink at the camera. Sure, she was boorish for trying to kiss Britney, whose trembling bottom lip seemed to simultaneously telegraph “Is this a trick?”, “Should I?”, and “I don’t think my manager will approve.” But if you compare Gaga’s performance alongside Katy Perry’s egotistical assumption that a song like “Firework,” which vaguely addresses queer closeted identity by celebrating individual perseverance, is doing something good for the world when it merely aligns herself with a lucrative niche market, Gaga might be moving closer toward pop progress. But I hate “Born This Way” as both a pop song and a political message, so I’m actually hoping Janelle Monáe brings the sex and politics back to pop music. Androids need love too.
But if we’re talking about pop music’s ability to inspire exciting sex, I can’t discredit an album I like a great deal more than Erotica. Sade’s Love Deluxe slunk into American record stores on October 20, 1992, the same day that Madonna’s fifth album initiated controversy. Janet Jackson’s janet. came out the following spring and is more potently erotic than Madonna’s offering, but I think that album requires its own post and a review of Poetic Justice. While many contemporaries sought reinvention to stay relevant, Nigerian British torch singer Sade Adu and her band continue to release reliably warm, enveloping jazz-pop for quiet storms, yacht rides, and power outages. I bought Love Deluxe on tape in junior high as a compromise. I wanted to see Indecent Proposal but my parents were like, “Ummmmm, absolutely not!” “No Ordinary Love” featured prominently in the trailer, so it sufficed until I finally saw Adrian Lyne’s sexist glamorization of kept women and poor business decisions at a girlfriend’s house. The scene in the kitchen is pretty hot, though. But “Kiss of Life,” “Cherish the Day,” and “I Couldn’t Love You More” are way hotter.
I don’t want to set up a racist, misogynistic binary wherein white female pop stars are cold sexbots and female pop stars of color have erotic energy coursing through their veins. Nor do I want to overlook that Sade’s songs assume heterosexual coupling. But Sade’s articulation of sexuality is predicated on the assumption that these forms of expression are something people do together. Also, sexuality isn’t the only lens through which Sade explores empathy and human connection. Despite the luxe atmosphere Sade’s music often seems to cultivate, many of her songs focus on poverty and the struggle for basic survival. Two such songs on Love Deluxe are “King of Pain” and “Pearls.” The latter track, which is about a poor Somalian woman, always makes me tear up a little. It may be a bit paternalistic in its storytelling, but it’s no less effective.
Thus, I think Sade’s articulation of the erotic is at least as powerful and enduring. Others seem to agree. Molly Lambert recently saw Sade in concert and raved about the performance, Sade’s enduring sexiness, and the sense of community the event created. Ms. Adu turns 53 next January. Let’s remember to wish her a happy birthday.
Check in with media journal In Media Res (@MC_IMR on Twitter). This week’s theme is ubiquitous pop star Lady Gaga. Yesterday, Brazen Beauties‘ Jessalynn Keller essay on Gaga’s postfeminist rhetoric took focus. Today’s feature is Kirsty Fairclough’s piece on Gaga’s installation with Terence Koh and her employment of an avant-garde sensibility in the construction of her mainstream celebrity.
The journal has also devoted issues to Glee, Twilight, Mad Men, and other phenomena of popular culture. For folks curious to read further, I’d gladly draw your attention to recent issues on fan/celebrity relationships and sports and media.
Okay, so M.I.A.’s divisive third album, /\/\/\Y/\, has been out since early July. Its official release was on the 13th, though she “leaked” it on her MySpace page earlier in the month. Of course, the release of lead single “XXXO” and the music video for “Born Free” ramped up anticipation, as did her sound-bite shit-talk toward Interscope label mate Lady Gaga.
Pitch escalated when Lynn Hirschberg’s scandalous New York Times profile damaged the M.I.A.’s profile, prompting folks to provide advice for how to put her suddenly waning career back on track. Back in 2007, M.I.A., LCD Soundsystem, and Panda Bear topped many critics’ best-of lists (and dazzled this moi) with albums that expanded the studio boundaries of fringe-audience pop music. All of these artists release follow-ups this year. James Murphy has made it through his most recent foray relatively unscathed. I imagine that Panda Bear’s Tomboy will be kid-gloved as a musical evolution while M.I.A.’s self-titled /\/\/\Y/\ will be framed as a manic detour. How’s that for sexism?
I’ll admit some bias. I’ve been an M.I.A. fan since I saw two girlfriends execute the “Galang” dance with perfect synchronicity at a college party. Her first two albums rank amongst my favorites of the decade, though I’m always aware of how middle-class and white I am when I pump “Paper Planes” in my Mazda 626. But for me, there aren’t that many female artists at the level of fame she’s achieved who consistently relish in having pop culture ram against political insurrection. As Jessica Hopper put it in her review, she makes pop for capitalist pigs.
But I’ve also been critical of M.I.A. She was the subject of the first presentation I gave at a national conference. At the 2008 PCA/ACA conference, I proposed that her deliberate use of b-girl fashion projected a subversive racialized femininity. Predictably, this resulted in the Sri Lankan refugee turning outdated, second-hand designs into a hot commodity once she reached a certain level of fame, making her a hipster icon for designers like Marc Jacobs and retailers like American Apparel and Converse. Unfortunately, the current backlash was bound to happen.
Some folks wrote incisive commentary on Hirschberg’s article, evident in LaToya Peterson’s Jezebel article and Sady Doyle’s Tiger Beatdown piece. Unfortunately, the piece irrevocably skewed the reception of M.I.A.’s new album, forcing buried tensions to surface around the actual political merit of her artistic contributions that previously went unquestioned. Thanks to this article, many critics now seem to think she’s crazy, phony, constructed, and untalented (though unable to admit that they’ve been had, as Arular and Kala were almost unanimously praised). Much of this criticism seems short-sighted and blind to how popular opinion is engineered. Apart from explicit references to Hirschberg’s profile, its influence is particularly evident in the annoying ubiquity of the term “agit-prop,” which has lost all meaning for me.
So now that the album has been out for a few weeks and writers don’t have to play hand pile with Twitter, how about we calm down? M.I.A.’s third album is not that bad. Actually, it’s pretty good. More to the point, it’s remarkably consistent with her previous offerings, leading me to wonder why folks are just now getting annoyed with her tendency toward mock-incendiary sloganeering and posturing. Let’s put things in perspective, shall we?
Oh and let’s also get truffle oil French fries out of our minds as a symbol of her waning credibility. Like it’s hard to find a basket of those in Los Angeles. Matter of fact, I remember sharing a pizza topped with truffle “essence” at the Brick Oven before a Gravy Train!!!! show a few summers back. I was doing some contract voice-over work at the time, which wasn’t especially lucrative but could afford me to go in on a $10 pie. Also, I find Maya and fiancé/Seagram heir Ben Brewer’s decision to turn a Brentwood mansion into a squat for their friends a far more interesting application of wealth, perhaps more clearly indicating the couple’s political values.
If I rated things on a scale of 10, I’d give /\/\/\Y/\ a 7. It retains much of her signature while loosening its grip periodically to incorporate dub and industrial’s influence into her sound. It meanders a bit and lags toward the end in a free associative haze, not unlike fellow pop iconoclast and mother Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part Two. For me, its tangential feel simulates the non-linear nature of online interaction that’s foregrounded in the album art as well as the typing sounds and the mantra that comprise opening track “The Message”.
As an album, /\/\/\Y/\ doesn’t pack the immediate wallop of her first two albums — particularly the breakthrough Kala, which made her a household name and also guaranteed that she’d disappoint people after her Grammy performance, involvement with Slumdog Millionaire, and musical cameos in movie trailers.
However, I’d put the compressed energy of “Steppin’ Up,” “Born Free,” and “Meds and Feds” up there with “Bird Flu.” I also like the contrast with smoother numbers like “It Takes a Muscle,” “Tell Me Why,” and “Space.” I side with Ann Powers’s reading of “XXXO” as a statement about the problematic nature of constructing a pop star and a commentary about M.I.A.’s assumed role as a producer’s muse. I’m fine with the pro-weed chorus to “Teqkilla,” as it plays like a commentary on the post-ironic hipster inanity of a Nylon party that’s honoring her. And if Mark Richardson believes the lyric about Googling yourself in Discovery’s “Orange Shirt” captures “the low-level digitally assisted narcissism of the current age,” I wonder what he makes of M.I.A.’s line in “It Iz What It Iz” about having discussions with her partner while playing Wii.
Part of what prevented me from writing this piece earlier is the inability to reconcile her status as international pop star with her national heritage and cultural origins. Recently, I was having a sloshy party conversation with my friends Alex and Jessalynn about this problem. They proposed that M.I.A. has mythologized her family’s move from war-torn Sri Lanka to London to the point of distortion. They were skeptical of how she got to London, noting that her family must have some connections gained through privilege that the pop star is obscuring to lend credibility to the marginal cultural position she’s defined for herself. Fair point, because while London has a considerable immigrant population, I do wonder what educational programs were offered to a South London teenager that granted her enrollment at St. Martin’s College. I am also troubled by how a pop star is expected to speak on behalf of her home country’s systemic oppression, particularly as she grows more distant from its citizenry while exploiting a telegraphed representation of her heritage for profit.
Yet I find these set of issues especially interesting, particularly as many of our contemporary female pop stars make interchangeable hits about partying in appropriated pan-Native American couture or cupcake bras. I’ll take M.I.A.’s recent Late Show performance of “Born Free” over any of this nonsense. There may not have been gun shots to censor this time, but the army of M.I.A. avatars bested Eminem’s VMA performance of “The Real Slim Shady” and Suicide’s Martin Rev bleating out the sampled riff to “Ghost Rider” created televisual drama. M.I.A. might be a frustrating pop cultural figure and a guaranteed sell-out, but she’s far from boring.